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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Triple Package Doesn't Make the Grade

So I have just published a review of Triple Package (by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld) for Slate here.  Below I've posted a shorter and sweeter version of the review, for an audience who likely knows a bit more about Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, given that they're both faculty at Yale Law School.

A few years ago, Chua authored The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a memoir in which she extolled the virtues of harsh disciplinary “Chinese” parenting.  She's now become something of a brand, a polarizing figure loved or hated because of her views on the link between culture and success. Rubenfeld (Amy's husband and Yale Law School colleague) is a provocateur in his own right, having authored his controversial article on rape. But this book’s most distinctive feature is what has become Chua’s stock in trade: the claim that group cultures explain why those groups are winners.

Most folks in the academic community have dismissed this book with much eye-rolling, even as Amy and Jed are laughing all the way to the bank.  To be fair, Triple Package is a trade book for a trade press, written in a lively style accessible to Chua’s earlier readers.  Still, the authors push their academic bona fides on the talk-show circuit, and conservative media is touting the book as scholarly proof that culture explains persistent racial gaps in achievement.  For those reasons, it seems important to treat the book as a serious argument and subject it to scrutiny.

Here is the book’s thesis:  Some groups (Cubans, Nigerians, Mormons, Jews, some Asian groups, south Asian Indians, and Iranians) enjoy upward mobility in the US at higher rates because they possess the so-called triple package of cultural traits: impulse control, feelings of superiority and feelings of inferiority.  By impulse control, Amy and Jed mean the ability to resist the temptation (to quit when the going gets rough, for example); superiority and inferiority appear to be a simultaneous belief in your group’s specialness (e.g., God’s chosen people) and deep-seated anxiety about inadequacy (for example, the kind that a Chinese mother might instill in her daughter by calling her garbage.)

The book makes a point of drawing comparisons between groups who are economically successful and those who aren’t.  Being Latino is no impediment, the book argues, if Cubans can make it. Nor is being black, if Nigerians can do well (though in recent appearances, the authors downplay these comparisons.)

The big problem with the authors' thesis is that they ignore the more obvious explanation for differences in group success: history.  In their zeal to make it all about culture, the authors either ignore or strongly discount the historical circumstances of a group’s first arrival, and the advantages enjoyed by that first wave. (I find their decision to minimize history a bit strange, given that many of their own sources favor this explanation.) Here are some of the early-wave stories that the authors ignored or minimized:

  • Mormons started with enough money to buy a great deal of land in Missouri and Illinois.  They then migrated to Utah, where Brigham Young and his followers essentially stole land from the Shoshone and Ute tribes, refusing to pay what the tribes demanded and petitioning for their removal. In addition to all that "free" land, control of territorial Utah government didn't hurt.
  • Nigerians coming to the US do well in higher education because a great many of them are non-immigrant foreign students coming in expressly to enroll in institutions of higher education.  They frequently get advanced degrees because their foreign student visas require that they be in school.

First-wave advantage is significant. As I have argued elsewhere, wealth and education for early waves generate significant advantage for group members and their children. Social networks among the elite and well educated help to distribute social assistance, job referrals, financial opportunities, information, and other kinds of goodies not available to people outside the group.

Triple Package's argument about culture really falls apart when we focus on the later-coming waves, who came with far less wealth. If group culture is the right explanation, then the later waves should look very much like the first waves at the same stage of development. But if history and structure are the right explanation, then their trajectories will look different.  And that's precisely what we see.

  • A third wave of poor undocumented Chinese immigrants has come to the US since the 1980s, and this wave has not folded into existing communities. This group’s trajectory looks nothing like the earlier waves, and their children are not getting into Stuyvesant High. 
  • The third wave of Cubans, the Marielitos who were disproportionately poor and black, assimilated into Cuban communities but remained on the fringes economically, earning far less than their white counterparts.
  • The most recent Mormon converts are black (the church didn't accept black men as priests until 1978) and brown, haling from the US and various Latin American and African countries.  This group's drop-out rate is high, and its metrics for success look nothing like the white Mormons on which the book focuses. (It's worth noting that according to the book's own source, the metrics for white Mormons are not particularly remarkable--they not any more likely to graduate college and are no more likely to earn over $100,000).

Acknowledging the fate of these later waves, Chua and Rubenfeld must now start slicing and dicing the groups into smaller categories.  So now the culture argument explains just a restricted range of south Asians; white Cubans who came after the revolution, but not the black Cubans who came later; post-1950 white Mormons, but not the black or brown group members.  At this point, the claim looks less like an argument about group culture and more a claim about cherry-picked sub-sub groups or even individuals at the right time period with the right traits. 

Plus there's that pesky issue of race, which appears to divide those who make it from those who don't.

Serious sociologists (Harvard's William Julius Wilson, Yale's Elijah Anderson) think that culture plays a role in success but that structure and history play a much bigger role.  To oversimplify the sociology view, history and structure drive the bus, and culture is one of several passengers.  But Triple Package isn’t serious scholarship.  As a provocative claim that plays to the Tiger Mother crowd, the book's narrative works.  But as a substantive claim about persistent group differences, Triple Package just doesn’t make the grade.   

Posted by Daria Roithmayr on February 12, 2014 at 06:06 PM | Permalink


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When people from other disciplines ask why legal research lacks gravitas, I try to defend it and explain its merit. Chua and Rubenfeld make that job harder.

Posted by: Anon | Feb 13, 2014 9:25:39 AM

These are a couple of very intelligent people. They are too smart not to know that their analysis lacks logic by any standards. So, how do they publish a book like this and look themselves in the mirror? Are Chua and Rubenfeld simply out to make money?

Posted by: Anonymous | Feb 13, 2014 5:17:27 PM

I have not read the book, and do not plan to, but I have now read/seen at least a half dozen book reviews in prominent places (including this one)and the book has certainly been noticed and will generate some quick cash to be sure. But I also have not seen a single positive thing in any of the book reviews and really can't understand why anyone, let alone two Professors, would want to publish such a book.

Posted by: Anon | Feb 13, 2014 11:01:09 PM

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